Review Summary: The last hurrah of a group in its death throes.
The grunge movement was one of much importance to rock music in the 90's, brought to light by Nirvana and other giants often classified as the then fledgling genre. Hailing from a small town just outside of Seattle, Screaming Trees are often bundled into the grunge movement with these flannel donning goons, but perhaps not rightfully so. Looking back, the band's early output shows some mad grooves just dripping with 60's psychedelia influence, something that never completely left the group. Indeed, their last two studio albums include elements classifiable by the grunge label, but Screaming Trees managed to put their own spin on it, making them a truly inimitable group. Unfortunately, the 90's also saw a band suffering from inactivity, but their last record before inevitable disbandment, 'Dust', is arguably their best. For what it's worth, it serves as a culmination of all their past work and influences, but in the end, 'Dust' is just a fantastic rock album.
I can't emphasize enough that this isn't quite the same Screaming Trees that recorded in the 80's, which should be apparent enough as the rocking guitar line in opener 'Halo of Ashes' kicks the album off. From that, the listener can also tell that 'Dust' retains the similar hard rock edge of its predecessor, 'Sweet Oblivion'. Aside from drummer Barrett Martin, who replaced Mark Pickerel after the recording of 1991 release, 'Uncle Anesthesia', the one thing that hasn't changed at this point in the Trees' career is their lineup, and the time playing with each other has no doubt done wonders for the band's interplay. Martin and bassist Van Conner keep everything incredibly tight, allowing guitarist Gary Lee Conner to constantly lay down some surprisingly infectious melodies with ease. In other groups, these players would be quite a bit more prominent than they are here, but it's singer Mark Lanegan's performances that constantly steal the show. His voice is simply phenomenal throughout, whether it be through his sonorous booms in 'Halo of Ashes' or in his soft, soothing baritone in 'Look at You'. Despite the ability of the band, it's indubitably Lanegan's vocals that give the Trees their signature sound.
Combine all the aforementioned talent of the band with some great collaborative songwriting, and out comes 'Dust'. The record basically defines solid; there are no sub-par songs to be found on the album whatsoever. Even more impressive is how much variety there is to find considering the album's consistency, particularly in its instrumentation. The strings in 'Dime Western' contribute an undoubtedly eastern feel, while a fitting addition of flutes and choir and some excellent acoustic work from Gary Lee Connor make 'Traveler' an absolutely relaxing listen. The album also features both mellotron and harmonium use in a few numbers, and often draws on some interesting and inventive percussion, such as the use of tablas in parts of the closer, 'Gospel Plow'.
At this point, 'Dust' probably doesn't sound like it's really grunge music at all. The band sort of haphazardly get the tag thrown on them because of the Seattle scene, but so many different sounds are displayed during its duration that the album is almost impossible to classify under one genre. That doesn't really matter though, because however you look at it, 'Dust' is an excellent rock album, and an even better close to Screaming Trees' somewhat extensive discography. It really is a shame that these guys never quite achieved the mainstream success of their contemporaries, because there's enough hooks and catchy melodies for even the most casual fan of rock music to enjoy. I guess 'Dust' was just never meant to be hailed a classic by angsty teens with greasy hair and Nirvana shirts after all.